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Customers accuse state-approved solar energy contractor of fraud

CHICAGO (CBS) We’re shining a light on the renewable energy industry in Illinois.

Tens of thousands of roofs in the state are home to solar panels. Many of those property owners are seeing reduced electricity bills.

But we’ve learned that some consumers took the plunge and are still in the red. CBS 2 Lauren Victory explores complaints about a solar panel incentive program run by the state.

Sunil D’Souza showed CBS 2 high-tech equipment inside his Westchester warehouse that connects new technology outside to the old electrical grid. He takes his hands-on family business here seriously. That means investing in its future.

“Doing solar looked like a very financially sound decision for us,” D’Souza said.

Here were just some of the promises: $3,300 in energy savings a year; a $36,000 increase in property value; a “low risk, high yield” investment.

Those promises were all part of a November 2020 proposal from Eco-Solar Solutions. D’Souza paid the Illinois solar company almost $40,000 for his panels and the installation. Various credits were supposed to burn off most of that bill.

“So we were looking at maybe around a $4,000 actually out-of-pocket cost that we were gonna have to make up in terms to justify our payoff,” D’Souza said.

Victory: “That’s a pretty good deal.”

D’Souza: “It’s a very good deal.”

Here comes the hook.

“What we didn’t get was something called an SREC payment,” D’Souza said.

By SREC, he’s referring to “solar renewable energy credit.”

The Illinois Power Agency relies on SRECs to incentivize consumers to switch to solar using its program called “Illinois Shines.”

The state said the program can’t be called a rebate, but it certainly sounds like one: install solar panels using an Illinois Shines-approved vendor and get a chunk of money back. D’Souza was expecting a $15,000 check.

“Instead of paying it directly to us, it was issued to the contractor who did the solar installation,” D’Souza said.

Illinois Shines administrators, who are state employees, said that part went smoothly. Incentives are supposed to flow through the vendor. The break in the circuit came when Eco-Solar Solutions didn’t forward D’Souza his money.

“Here’s the irony: I managed to fine out that the contractor who did this, did this to several other people,” he said.

Bill Meyer, of Minooka, is missing $13,000 in Illinois Shines incentives.

“It was interesting to hear his story,” Meyer said of D’Souza. “It sounded very similar.”

Meyer shared a text from Eco-Solar Solutions owner Paul Szezesny in which he acknowledged he received the SREC payment in July of 2021.

“I would have been paid off and ‘making a profit,’ which would just be savings basically, uh, year five,” Meyer said.

Instead, Meyer is losing more money paying attorneys to recoup what’s rightfully his.

That money also kind of belongs to other consumers. Check your power bill under “taxes and fees.” The “renewable portfolio standard” charge funds the Illinois Shines incentive payments. Eco-Solar Solutions arguably took money from all consumers.

So what happened?

Neither Szezesny nor his former business partner answered their doors when CBS 2 came knocking. CBS 2 also wrote them a note and left a request for an interview in their mailboxes.

Szezesny and Victory eventually spoke, but he refused to meet in person.

Victory: “There’s nothing you want to say on the phone right now?”

He said he would only answer emailed questions but didn’t respond to the main question: why Eco-Solar Solutions pocketed incentive money owed to customers?

Instead, he said, “I deeply apologize to clients,” and called the issue “disheartening,” and promised he’s in the “process of repaying” former customers.

After CBS 2 went knocking, Szezesny dropped off a $340 money order to D’Souza. He had started making payments to the drywall tool maker in 2022 but stopped. Szezesny still owes the business about $8,000.

“They never should have set up a program like this so that a third party like the contractor could get all that money, and then they’re responsible for paying us,” D’Souza said.

Meyer added, “Zero understanding as to why the program would be set up this way. Zero.”

Is a state-funded program that’s paid for by all of us revealing a shady side of solar?

As for why the solar incentive payment can’t be given directly to the property owner, tune in Tuesday at 10 pm when CBS 2 will show what it took to get an answer to that question.

In the meantime, CBS 2 has heard from Eco-Solar customers who said the owner has slowly started paying them back. The company is out of business.


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